Close to 50,000 people will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year. April is Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Start a discussion with your dentist about oral cancer screening and prevention.

Oral cancer is crippling and will progress from a stage 1 diagnosis to stage 4 very quickly. Often times when the cancer is discovered by sight it’s stage 4, and too late. Be proactive and learn about the various factors that may put you at risk. Then schedule a thorough and affordable screening at Refresh Dental.

What is oral cancer?

Our chief medical officer, Dr. Andrew Matta, says there are a few facts and prevention tips everyone should know. Oral cancer is any cancer in the cheek, lip, tongue, or even the throat. There are two types: oral cavity cancer, which can appear on the lips, teeth, gums, and tongue, or oropharyngeal (throat) cancer, which appears in the middle of the throat, tonsils, and sometimes at the base of the tongue.

According to Dr. Matta, oral and throat cancer are very similar. Our mouths have a large blood supply which allows these types of cancer to metabolize and spread quickly. The full development process can take years, but by the time most patients notice any symptoms, it’s too late to reverse. By practicing prevention, healthy habits, and routine screenings, it can be avoided or caught early.

Oral Cancer Early Risk Factors

It is difficult to pinpoint why exactly oral cancer develops, but it is usually a habitual cause. Tobacco is the biggest risk factor and, when paired with heavy alcohol use, the likelihood is multiplied. Men are twice as likely to develop oral cancer as women. It used to be more common in older men with a history of smoking and drinking, mostly because the cancer takes so long to develop.

Now the demographic is growing and many young adults in their early-20’s are suffering from oral cancer. This is due to the discovered link between HPV patients and oral cancer. Most of these young individuals who contract a form of HPV show no symptoms, and few develop oral cancer. However, the increase in youthful cases is noticeable and has greatly shifted the demographic dentists used to associate as “at risk”.

There can also be a genetic link, as with any cancer. These causes and risk factors may increase your chance of developing oral cancer, but anyone can be a victim. Although an oral cancer screening is technically your oral health provider’s responsibility, it’s up to you to start the conversation.

Ask About Screenings

Oral cancer screenings should be done at least once a year, but twice a year won’t hurt. You can do this during a regular cleaning, or just schedule a screening alone. A visual screening can be done with no technology or instrument and can be part of a routine evaluation.

During cleanings and other exams, your dentist should be checking the teeth and gums for signs of oral cancer. For more in-depth examinations, a dentist will manipulate the glands and lift under the tongue to slide back underneath for a good look at the base of the tongue. If cancerous spots are visible, it’s a stage 4 diagnosis. You can catch stage 2 or 3 with different screening instruments, but they are not detectable to the natural eye. Cancer that returns after treatment is known as recurrent oral cancer.

Stages of oral cancer

Stage 1: The affected area is less than 2 centimeters and hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage 2: The affected area is greater than 2 centimeters, but less than 4, and still hasn’t spread to the lymph nodes.
Stage 3: One or more of the following are true: the affected area is greater than 4 centimeters or has spread to one of the lymph nodes.
Stage 4: One or more of the following are true: the cancer has spread to the lip or oral cavity, the cancer has spread to any lymph node and is greater than 6 centimeters, or the cancer has spread to more than one lymph node on the same side of the neck as the affected area.

When screening for oral cancer, Refresh Dental offices use an oral mucosal visual enhancement system called Identafi®. The instrument projects 3 wavelengths of fluorescent light that reflect against the tissue to illuminate any affected areas. The screening is painless and takes less than 90 seconds.

If your dentist discovers something suspicious during your screening, they will refer you to an oral surgeon or sometimes an ENT for a biopsy. This process is covered by some insurance but is affordable if not. In patients where cancer is found, the surgeon will partner with an oncologist for chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Unfortunately, by this point, the cancer has often taken over the entire mouth and tongue and few people survive this treatment.

Oral cancer takes years to develop and shows little to no symptoms until its final stage. By this point, it’s often too late to treat. Sit down with your dentist and discuss factors that may put you at risk of developing oral cancer.

At Refresh Dental we provide patients with affordable screenings because we know how fast oral cancer spreads and how difficult it is to reverse. The average national rate for these screenings is $55. Stop by one of our locations today for your $25 screening.

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